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When Biannie Burton’s abusive husband Charlie dies in a motorcycle accident, she looks forward to creating a new life for herself and her family, never dreaming Charlie will be more trouble dead than he ever was alive.
Biannie had her window down, the cool December air soothing to her stomach, still unsettled from an hour of the overwhelming scent of incense and flowers and the lengthy monolog of the minister. She looked in her side mirror to see who was in the vehicle, but the dark glass hid the occupants.
They were too close. If Ken had to hit the brakes, the pickup would rear-end them. No way to avoid it.
“Slow down,” she said to Ken. “Maybe they’ll go around.”
The truck slowed as well.
“Pull into the gas station.”
Ken selected the 7-Eleven ahead of them, speeded up some then without signaling, swung into a parking space in front of the convenience store.
Biannie watched as the pickup hesitated, then drove very slowly past them.
“Weird,” Ken said, and guided the Camaro back onto Classen.
Biannie didn’t answer. One cigarette, she decided. She was stopping, she really was. A person had to have at least a little control over her life. But after this hellish day, surely she deserved one smoke, a few moments when relaxation spread like a warm wave over her entire body. As soon as she had everyone settled, she’d go out on the back patio, light up and let the Oklahoma wind cool her hot face and blow away the remnants of this day.
When those two young policemen had knocked on her door in the middle of the night, her first reaction to their news was one of a great, freeing relief. Her nightmare was over. Her sons were finally safe. The question, “Now what?” came later.
“You okay, Mom,” Ken asked and reached over to squeeze her hand. Biannie felt moisture on her cheeks. She was crying. Why in the hell would she be crying?
Biannie nodded. Her closed throat refused to let words form.
Eldon and Giang were silent in the back seat. Eldon said after a moment, “Mom, none of us are sorry Dad’s gone.”
More tears flooded her cheeks. She searched blindly in her purse for a cigarette. To give her hands something to do. To fill time. To give herself the chance to think of something to say. To celebrate. Maybe celebrate was the wrong word. A person shouldn’t celebrate another person’s death.
That thought stilled her hands and brought the image of the beefy man from the church into her mind. Maybe he was celebrating. Maybe that was why he’d bought so many flowers? What was his connection to Charlie that he’d spend money like that? She’d always thought that flowers were a sign of respect for the deceased. Maybe not. His last comment had sounded like a threat.
Biannie closed her purse and pressed her hands to her throbbing face, wiped away the tears and stared out at the bland Oklahoma City landscape. She thought about cigarettes. And funerals. And freedom.
Her mother’s sharp words about school kept repeating in her head. She’d love a college degree, but not because her mom thought it would be a good idea. If she chose that direction for her future, it would be because she thought it was a good idea.
Ken continued north to Britton Road, past small houses trimmed with a token string of Christmas lights, past larger houses decorated from one end of their large lots to the other. He turned left and then a few blocks later turned them onto their street. Biannie glimpsed their house at the end of the block of medium-sized brick houses even as she became aware again of loud Salsa music throbbing into the silence of the empty street.
The red pickup burst from a side street. Thumping drums and bad lyrics blared from the thundering sound system. Dark windows hid the occupants. Frantically, Ken accelerated to keep the huge truck from rear-ending them.
Whoever was driving leaned on the horn and the passenger rolled down his window and waved and pointed to their driveway. Ken slowed, and the pickup forced them into the narrow space between their front lawn and the new motor home. With a final aggressive roar of the mega engine, the red truck parked directly behind their car, blocking any effort to run.
Before Biannie could open her door, two men leaped from the truck. She watched in her side mirror as the copper- skinned man with cold eyes ran toward the driver’s side. She had a confused impression of a pock-marked face, dark hair pulled into a long braid, and a blindingly bright Hawaiian shirt. He caught the window before Ken could close it. His large hands grabbed and yanked the glass, breaking it and pulling it out of the door. Then he reached through and opened the driver side door.
The black man charged to Biannie’s side of the car, a football linebacker in a neat suit, his eyes hidden by aviator glasses, a thin black cigar clenched in his teeth.
“Call the police, Eldon,” she gasped and tried to lock her door. With the driver’s door open, it wouldn’t lock.
The black man motioned, removed the cigar and said, “Open your window.”
Biannie stared at him, open-mouthed, then reluctantly punched the button. The window whined to the half way mark.
The man took a small pull on the cigar as if considering his options where she and her family were concerned. After a moment that made Biannie’s palms sweat, he gestured with the cigar, and smiled a broad white smile. “How you doing, Mrs. Burton?” he said pleasantly. “Mo and me was real sorry to hear about old Charlie. We wanted to give you our condolences.”
Biannie stared at him. This was about Charlie?
The other man, huge, six foot seven or eight, didn’t respond. He stared first at Ken then at her with flat, dark eyes. Snake eyes. Biannie fought to breathe as he leaned against Ken’s open door. “Right, condolences.” He coughed out a rusty laugh
“Thank you,” Biannie licked her dry lips then bit the inside of her cheek. Why had she answered him? And why, for god’s sake, would she say thank you to thugs. Thank you? Had Charlie’s abuse siphoned off every bit of spunk she’d had? She fully expected an outraged swat on the back of her head from her mother.
“You’re very welcome, Sweet Thing.” The black man straightened and spoke over the car. “She’s got nice manners, don’t she, Mo?”
“Real nice, Scully,” the Indian man said. His deep voice rumbled from his thick chest.
“What do you want?” Biannie’s voice shook as behind her she heard Eldon on his cell phone.
The Indian man saw Eldon with his phone as well.
“Hey, Boy,” he barked. “Give me that phone before I make you eat it.” He shoved Ken’s face into the steering wheel, and held out his other hand for the phone.
“Go to hell,” Eldon said.
The Indian man pulled a gun from his shoulder holster. “I don’t think you understood me, Boy.” His voice was deadly.
Biannie twisted in her seat. “Eldon, do what he says.” Her voice came out a ragged whisper.
Giang reached over and put her small hand on Eldon’s knee. “Don’t be a stupid one,” she said.
“I don’t want to hurt you, Boy, but I will.” The Indian man clicked off the safety.
For a long moment Eldon stared at him.
Biannie choked down panic. “Eldon, please.”
“Listen to your mama, Son,” the black man said. “She don’t need more trouble than she already got.”
After a long defiant moment, Eldon handed the man the phone.
The Indian man holstered his gun, took the phone, turned it off, and tossed it toward the house where it landed on the lawn.
“Like I said, we wanted to offer our condolences.” The black man spoke pleasantly as if the standoff hadn’t happened. His even teeth flashed white against dark skin. “No reason for us to want anything from you.”
“Or your boys.” The huge man from the other side of the car slammed his fist against the top of the car. Biannie jumped, jerking her sprained arm and shoulder into a painful spasm inside the sling.
Ken tried to get out. The big man’s bulk blocked him in. His large hand shoved him back against the seat.
“Hey,” the black man said, “take it easy, Mo. No need to take your irritation at Charlie out on these fine folks. They’ll take care of things.”
“What things?” The spasm eased but Biannie’s neck ached from looking up at the man.
“Your old man owes us ten large.” Mo hit the top of the car again.
“Stop that,” Ken said clutching the steering wheel. “You’re denting the roof.”
“Ten what?” The words swam in Biannie’s head without meaning.
The black man’s voice slowed as if talking to a retarded child. “Charlie Burton owes our boss ten thousand dollars.”
“American dollar?” Giang’s voice sounded amazed.
“That’s right, Ma’am.” Scully smiled at her. “American dollars.”
While Scully worked on his cigar, the Indian said in a raspy voice, “Your old man liked the cards. But I guess you already know.”
Biannie swallowed. Ten . . . ?
“Yeah, good old Charlie,” he said and chuckled. “He thought he was Kenny Rogers, or one of them guys on TV.” He sang softly in a surprisingly pleasant voice, “Got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.” He laughed. “Stupid bastard.”
Biannie stopped breathing as Mo smirked at her from Ken’s side of the car. The facial grimace didn’t reach his cold eyes.
“You’ll be getting an insurance settlement.” The black man’s words pulled Biannie’s attention back to him. The words weren’t a question.
Biannie swallowed. Charlie wouldn’t have given her or the boys a single thought. No insurance.
“When you settle Charlie’s debts, you take care of us first. You got that?” He smiled but his voice was iron. “We’re first. Everybody understand? We’re first.” He handed her a glossy business card. “Don’t make me ask twice
Mo straightened. Scully touched the bulge of his shoulder holster. “We’re first in line. You remember that and everything will be fine.” The two of them moved toward the red pickup.
A siren whined in the distance.
In the side mirror, she saw the black man turn back. “By the way,” he called, “Mo and I know who you are.” He smiled and spread his arms expansively. “And we know where you live.” His words hung in the air. “You call us by Friday. Tell us how you’re going to take care of Charlie’s screw-up.”